The Forest for the Trees: An Editor's Advice to Writersby Betsy Lerner
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Who knows the mind, the motives, and the mistakes of a writer better than his or her editor? Betsy Lerner-in addition to being a prize-winning poet and an author's agent-has spent years editing for major New York houses. In this unusual and compelling book, she shares the wisdom and insights she's gained from that work. Far more than a how-to manual, this book offers inspiration, inside views, and a colorful, anecdotal look at the publishing world-all delivered in the smart, funny, unpretentious voice that has helped to make Lerner one of the most prominent names in the business.
A quirky, informal, engaging guide. (Publishers Weekly)
With this book, Betsy Lerner becomes what every writer hopes for-a friend in the business. (Chicago Tribune)
Cleverly disguised as a sensible reference work...its tone is singularly authoritative, compassionate, irreverent...and unafraid. (New York Newsday)
A fascinating look into the mind of an editor and the publishing world.... (Lucy Grealy, author of The Autobiography of a Face)
Author Bio: Betsy Lerner has worked at Houghton Mifflin, Ballantine, Simon & Schuster, and Doubleday, as well as The Paris Review and The Gernert Company, where she is currently an agent. She holds an MFA in poetry, and has won numerous literary prizes and honors.
Publisher and Editorial Director of Nan A. Talese/Doubleday.
- Penguin Publishing Group
- Publication date:
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- Product dimensions:
- 5.58(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.80(d)
- Age Range:
- 18 Years
Read an Excerpt
I never dreamed of becoming an editor. Like many English majors, I spent much of my time in college reading novels and poetry, never quite fixing my attention on how I might parlay those interests into a job. In the final months of college, I went to the Career Placement Office, only to discover that I should have signed up in my junior year for the ongoing programs and job fairs. When I visited the head of the English Department to explore the possibility of graduate school, he stared at me in disbelief: Applications had been filled out in the fall.
When I entered the business, I believed that writers were exalted beings. How else could they capture in a single phrase the emotional truth of a lifetime or render a scene that seemed more lifelike than lifefi How else could they risk their lives and livelihoods on a string of sentences, baring their souls in a world ever more hostile to artists and artfi I was in awe of all writers, even those with less than perfectly realized works. They had broken through, and somewhere books existed with their names on them. Of course, it didn't take long for those pedestals to crumble.
Part I. Writing
1. The Ambivalent Writer
Do you have a new idea almost every day for a writing project? Do you either start them all and don't see them to fruition or think about starting but never actually get going? Are you a short-story writer one day and a novelist the next? A memoirist on Monday and a screenwriter by the weekend? Do you begin sentences in your head while walking to work or picking up the dry cleaning, sentences so crisp and suggestive that they make perfect story or novel openers, only you never manage to write them down? Do you blab about your project to loved ones, coworkers, or strangers before the idea is fully formed, let alone partially executed? Have you ever accidentally left your notes, diary, or disk behind on a train or plane and bemoaned the loss of what certainly had been your best work? Have you ever been diagnosed with any combination of bipolar disorder, alcoholism, or the skin diseases such as eczema or psoriasis? Do you snap at people who ask how your writing is going? What's it to them?
I believe that the writer who can't figure out what form to write in or what to write is stalling for a reason. Perhaps he is dancing around a subject because he is not ready to handle it, psychologically or emotionally. Perhaps he is unable to pursue a project because doing so would upset his world too much, or the people in it. Maybe not writing, maybe being driven crazy by the desire to write and the inability to follow through, is serving some greater goal, keeping some greater fear at bay. Fear of failure is the reason most often cited to explain why so many aspiring writers never realize their dreams. But I think it's that same fear of failure that absolutely invigorates those who do push through-that is, the fear of not being heard.
Writing is a calling, and if the call subsides, so be it. It may return in greater force the next time around. Some people say that you have to write all the time to get anywhere and that discipline will ultimately separate the men from the boys. But I assure you, you will never make yourself write. When writers say they have no choice, what they mean is: Everything in the world conspired to make me quit but I kept going. And most can't tell you why, as Lorrie Moore recently reiterated in a Publishers Weekly interview. "I still think you should become a writer only if you have no choice. Writing has to be an obsession-it's only for those who say 'I'm not going to do anything else.'" Or as she began her brilliant story "How to Become a Writer," which by now should be required reading for anyone entering an MFA program, "First, try to be something, anything, else."
Reprinted from The Forest for the Trees by Betsy Lerner by permission of Riverhead Books, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright (c) 2000 by Betsy Lerner. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.
What People are Saying About This
Betsy Lerner has three great qualities for an editor: intelligence, sensitivity and passion. She writes with wit and astounding perceptivity. Writers, take heed!
“[Lerner] doesn’t preach on how to write a book but rather tries to help writers and would-be authors cope with such problems as ‘being alone with it.’ It’s a survival course. She wants to help the writer who cannot get started embark, the writer stalled between projects ignite. She wants you to be an effective ‘self-promoter’ and not a ‘self-saboteur.’ The book is also an affirmation that late bloomers can become successful writers.” –The New York Times
“[Lerner] has a wicked sense of humor. But don’t think that means her book isn’t brilliant. It is. Cleverly disguised as a sensible reference work, [this] is in fact a riveting safari through the wilds of the writer’s brain, as well as an honest and unpatronizing guide to publishing from every angle. Its tone is singularly authoritative, compassionate, irreverent, and unafraid. Unquestionably a gift to writers of every persuasion.” –Newsday
“Betsy Lerner’s style is economical and witty. The Forest for the Trees should become a permanent part of any writer’s or editor’s personal library.” –The Seattle Times
“Solid, insider advice on every step of the publishing process… With this book, Betsy Lerner becomes what every writer hopes for—a friend in the business.” –Chicago Tribune
“Lerner describes the self-promoter, the natural, the wicked child, and the downright mentally ill. She explains the ambivalence that almost every writer feels about writing for oneself verses writing for the public… Her beautifully written book of observations and advice seems to be coming from a friend.” –Columbia Journalism Review
Meet the Author
Betsy Lerner has worked as an editor at Houghton Mifflin, Ballantine, Simon & Schuster, and most recently as executive editor at Doubleday. She lives in Pelham, New York and is currently an agent at the Dunow, Carlson & Lerner Literary Agency.
- Pelham, New York
- Date of Birth:
- August 9, 1960
- B.A., New York University, 1982; M.F.A., Columbia University, 1987
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